Playing happy families | Unintended

There’s a lot of potential in Unintended – the debut script by Unifaun Theatre founder and producer Adrian Buckle – but it’s buried in a sea of ‘in-yer-face’ theatre clichés, Teodor Reljic finds

Close shave… too close: Mariele Zammit and Stephen Mintoff. Photography by Christine Joan Muscat Azzopardi
Close shave… too close: Mariele Zammit and Stephen Mintoff. Photography by Christine Joan Muscat Azzopardi

Directed by Stephen Oliver for Unifaun Theatre Productions, the pre-prom romance gone wrong play Unintended is penned by Adrian Buckle – the founder of Unifaun and producer of all of its plays. Unifaun have staked a claim on the local theatrical scene for offering up ‘in-yer-face’ theatre at a regular basis, and sometimes caught serious flack for it (vide the Stitching saga) so this move feels like an organic one: their producer coming out of his shell to finally take his own stab – pun not intended – at the kind of theatre he has helped to import into the island. 

Inflected with a soundtrack from Muse – whose songs the cast alternatively take to lip-synching to during key moments – Unintended sees the jittery young history student Jamie (Stephen Mintoff) biting his nails at the prospect of meeting the parents: specifically, the parents of Lily Anne (Mariele Zammit) – one of the most popular girls in school who he is totally smitten with and whom he is about to take to ‘Silver Moon Ball’. Bringing them an actual live cat as a gift – good-natured and conscientious Jamie volunteers at an animal sanctuary – he soon discovers that his fears are justified. And then some. Martin (Mikhail Basmadjan) and Diana (Joyia Fitch) turn out to be sadistic perverts who, under the guise of sexually empowering Jamie toward a successful date with their daughter, quickly begin to mete out humiliation and torture on the reserved young man.

There’s promise in the play’s opening minutes, which leads to more promise as the awkward introductions between the parties are made and Jamie’s stress levels hike up. Helped along with a more than capable cast – Mintoff and Fitch in particular stand out – Unintended is at its best before the grotesque action really kicks into gear. Basmadjan is clearly having a blast with Martin, who goads teetotaler Jamie into taking drugs (while spiking his Coke all the way through their conversation) and leads him to conversational blind alleys to get a rise out of him (a debate on who makes for the best football player in history is a particularly inspired take on stereotypical male bonding). 

On the other hand, Fitch makes for a powerful presence with Diana: a toxic mixture of mothering and perverse, and between the two parents Jamie is given ample room for psychological discomfort.

But ironically, for all the hard-ons it seeks to inspire in our beleaguered protagonist, the second half of the play is remarkably limp as far as narrative drive is concerned. After poor Jamie is drugged and drugged over and over again and seduced into having aggressive – though it must be said, not entirely unsatisfying – sex with Diana, the play abandons its previously established vein of cheeky black humour and simmering tension in favour of a terminal descent into tired ‘torture porn’ territory. 

That Buckle is a fan of the in-yer-face theatre genre will surprise absolutely nobody – at least, not those who have followed the trajectory of Unifaun Theatre with even a fleeting sideways glance over its admirable run – and let’s face it, we all knew Unintended was heading towards a gory climax of some kind. But the problem is neither that the violence and degradation on display are ‘too much’, and neither, really, that this was a predictable move for the debut play by Unifaun’s founder and producer. The issue is one of simple story structure. 

Jamie’s torture arrives with very little contextual drama to make it feel like a fully-rounded affair. Yes, there’s something of a ‘ticking clock’ in Lily-Anne getting ready off-stage, and the possibility of her discovering her parents in the act (or various acts, as it happens). But given how Lily-Anne herself coos in pleasure as her father suggestively nibbles on her earlobe, the audience knows that any surprise she may derive from catching them with Jamie would be minimal. Another problem is that, while Jamie’s backstory does help the play’s themes come to full bloom in a surreal coda that evokes both David Lynch and Donnie Darko, its revelation comes far too late for the torture to feel anything but a numbing exercise in shock. 

In a lot of ways these are ‘rookie mistakes’ on Buckle’s part – the inevitable infelicities of a first-time playwright trying their hand at a genre that they’ve loved and have experienced second-hand from the producer’s chair. But Buckle’s satisfying handling of the darkly humorous repartee shown in the first half of Unintended, along with the deliciously nail-biting character drama aided by a clutch of actors who clearly trust him and the Unifaun project, may just augur for better things in the future. With less reverential pastiche of in-yer-face classics and more attention to character arcs and story structure, Buckle may just give us some English-language Maltese drama to write home about in the near future.

Unintended will be staged for a final performance at Spazju Kreattiv, St James Cavalier, Valletta tonight at 20:00